At forty, Mary South had a beautiful home, good friends, and a successful career in book publishing. But she couldn't help feeling that she was missing something intangible but essential. So she decided to go looking for it . . . at sea. Six months later she had quit her job, sold the house, and was living aboard a forty-foot, thirty-ton steel trawler she rechristened Bossanova. Despite her total lack of experience, South set out on her maiden voyage—a fifteen-hundred-mile odyssey from Florida to Maine—with her one-man, two-dog crew. But what began as the fulfillment of an idle wish became a crash course in navigating the complicated byways of the self.
It's never too late to be who you might have been.
Not long ago, I was probably a lot like you. I had a successful career, a pretty home, two dogs and a fairly normal life.
All I kept were the dogs.
Then one day in October 2003, I quit my good job and put my sweet little house on the market. I packed a duffel bag of clothes and everything else I owned went into storage. Within weeks I was the proud owner of an empty bank account and a 40-foot, 30-ton steel trawler that I had no idea how to run. I enrolled in nine weeks of seamanship school, and two weeks after my course ended, I pulled away from the dock on my very first trip: a 1,500-mile journey through the Atlantic from Florida to Maine.
My transformation from regular person to unhinged mariner started casually enough. Lured to Pennsylvania a few years ago by one more step up the book publishing career ladder, I had accepted a job that was editorial, managerial and very dull. I was busy enough at the office but, after work, I didn't know what to do with myself. I cooked, took guitar lessons, went to the gym, drank manhattans, watched movies at home and read books and magazines. But still I faced an abundance of excruciatingly quiet free time. On business trips to the city, I'd stock up on magazines. At first, I read a predictable assortment for a girl in exile from the big city: the New Yorker, New York, New York Review of Books.
Okay, it wasn't all about New York. There was House and Garden, Dwell, Utne Reader, Maisons Côté Ouest, Vogue, Gourmet. I'd read just about anything—which is probably how an occasional Yachting started to find its way into my stockpiles. When I saw Motorboating, Sail and Powerboating at the local supermarket, peeking out from behind the overwhelming number of firearm and bride publications (a combination that captured the flavor of the area all too well), I thought "Why not?" Soon, I had completely given up on literature, current events, even home decor. I started subscriptions to Passagemaker and Soundings, full year-long commitments. From there, it was a scary slide down the slippery slope to more extreme, niche titles (Professional Mariner Magazine, Workboat Magazine, American Tugboat Review) that I just had to have. I was becoming a trawler junky and I wasn't sure why.
But let's backtrack for a moment. I'd better start by admitting I am an optimist—not just your run-of-the-mill, happy-face, Pollyanna-type. I'm Old School—an extreme optimist of the sort that went out of style around the time of Don Quixote.
And like most optimists who regularly suffer the crushing defeats of a world less wonderful than they had imagined, I'm sure I have developed some finely honed coping strategies. (Or denial issues, if you prefer to call the glass half empty—as I obviously do not.) For instance, although I had just arrived at a new job in rural Pennsylvania full of vim and vigor, the deeply repressed realist within me knew almost immediately that I had made a terrible mistake. But there was no way I could admit that—even to myself.
The vocal Optimist in me said: Hey, this is pretty cool. They have an organic café at work and the food's really inexpensive.
But the mute Realist in me knew: Almost all of the food, no matter what it was, tasted weirdly the same, which—let's face it—was not good. At any price.
The Optimist said: Wow. It's so rural out here that you'd never know you were only 100 miles from New York City.
The Realist knew: I did not want to live in a place where the Wednesday Bob Evan's special was All the Possum You Can Eat for $3.99.
The Optimist said: What a gorgeous stone house I have found for a bargain price!
The Realist knew: I was going to ruin the rustic exposed stone walls (and drastically lower the resale value) when I splattered my brains all over them after a slow decline into loneliness and alcoholism.
My point is, maybe I wasn't able to admit to myself that I wanted out of that place in the worst possible way but nothing could have been less appropriate to my rural, landlocked situation than a sudden obsession with the boating lifestyle. So perhaps my newfound passion was just a strangled cry for help, issued from the lonely wilds of scenic nowhere.
Every day, I'd put on a suit and drive to the office. I'd organize my editors, read submissions, review manuscripts, return phone calls from agents, do some editing, write and rewrite copy. I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in "brainstorming meetings" where a group of us, pulled away from whatever we'd been working on by a prearranged ding on our Outlook calendars, sat in a windowless, fluorescent-lit meeting room and tried to come up with just the right title for a health book. (It had to be prescriptive, it had to hold out a promise to the reader, it had to have punch. Using numbers was good. Dangling a plan was ideal. Thirty-Day Plans were. . .well. . .we were on fire.)
Once a week, the staff gathered for editorial meetings to decide which manuscripts we should buy. The sales director would weigh in with her department's assessment on the latest submissions, and it was uncanny how often they seemed to vote with one mind: hers—which was, sadly, as wide as a stream in Death Valley. As long as the author was a celebrity or at least had a well-established marketing platform, there was a possibility we could buy the book. Of course, there were other hurdles to clear. We wouldn't want to take any risks: the topic had to be fresh but not too fresh. In other words, someone needed to have published a book on the . . .